Sam Altman is out as the CEO of OpenAI after 4 years at the helm.
Before that, he was well known in Silicon Valley as president of startup accelerator Y-Combinator.
Here's how the serial entrepreneur got his start — and ended up helming one of today's most-watched companies.
On November 17, 2023, OpenAI announced that Altman would be no longer be the company's CEO.
On Friday, the OpenAI board of directors announced that Altman would be stepping down from his role as CEO and leaving the board "effective immediately."
In a blog post, the board said it "no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI," and added that Altman was "not consistently candid in his communications." In the meantime, OpenAI chief technology officer Mira Murati is to step in as interim CEO while the company searches for a permanent replacement.
"We are grateful for Sam's many contributions to the founding and growth of OpenAI," a statement from OpenAI's board says. "At the same time, we believe new leadership is necessary as we move forward."
Altman issued his own statement via a post on X.
"i loved my time at openai. it was transformative for me personally, and hopefully the world a little bit. most of all i loved working with such talented people," Altman wrote.
He added: "will have more to say about what's next later."
The specific details surrounding Altman's ousting have yet to emerge, but here's a look at his life and career up until now.
Sam Altman, 38, grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. He learned how to program and take apart a Macintosh computer when he was 8 years old.
Source: The New Yorker
He told The New Yorker that having a Mac helped him with his sexuality. Altman came out to his parents when he was 16.
"Growing up gay in the Midwest in the two-thousands was not the most awesome thing," he told The New Yorker. "And finding AOL chat rooms was transformative. Secrets are bad when you're eleven or twelve."
Source: The New Yorker
He attended John Burroughs School, a private, non-sectarian college-preparatory school in St. Louis.
Altman came out as gay to the whole community after a Christian group boycotted an assembly at his school that was about sexuality.
"What Sam did changed the school," his college counselor, Madelyn Gray, told The New Yorker. "It felt like someone had opened up a great big box full of all kinds of kids and let them out into the world."
Source: The New Yorker
Altman studied computer science at Stanford University for two years before he and two of his classmates dropped out to work full time on their mobile app, Loopt, that shared a user's location with their friends.
Source: The New Yorker
Loopt was part of the first group of eight companies at startup accelerator Y Combinator. Each startup got $6,000 per founder, and Loopt was in the same batch as Reddit.
Loopt eventually reached a $175 million valuation, but it didn't garner enough interest, so the founders sold it for $43 million in 2012.
It's unclear what Altman's current net worth is.
After Loopt, Altman founded a venture fund called Hydrazine Capital, and raised $21 million. That included a large part of the $5 million he got from Loopt, and an investment from billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel.
Altman invested 75% of that money into YC companies, and led Reddit's Series B fundraising round.
He told The New Yorker, "you want to invest in messy, somewhat broken companies. You can treat the warts on top, and because of the warts the company will be hugely underpriced."
In 2014, at the age of 28, Altman was chosen by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham to succeed him as president of the startup accelerator.
While he was YC president, Altman taught a lecture series at Stanford called "How to Start a Startup," in the fall of 2014.
Source: How to Start a Startup
In 2015, Altman was featured on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for venture capital at age 29.
After he became YC president, he wanted to let more science and engineering startups into each batch. He chose a fission and a fusion startup for YC because he wanted to start a nuclear-energy company of his own. He invested his own money in both companies and served on their boards.
Mark Andreessen, cofounder of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, said, "Under Sam, the level of YC's ambition has gone up 10x."
Source: The New Yorker
Altman once told two YC founders that he likes racing cars and had five, including two McLarens and an old Tesla. He also said he likes renting planes and flying them all over California.
Source: The New Yorker
Altman told the founders of the startup Shypmate that, "I prep for survival," and warned of either a "lethal synthetic virus," AI attacking humans, or nuclear war.
"I try not to think about it too much," Altman told the founders in 2016. "But I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to."
Source: The New Yorker
Altman's mom is a dermatologist and told The New Yorker, "Sam does keep an awful lot tied up inside. He'll call and say he has a headache—and he'll have Googled it, so there's some cyber-chondria in there, too. I have to reassure him that he doesn't have meningitis or lymphoma, that it's just stress."
Source: The New Yorker
Altman has a brother, Jack, who is a cofounder and CEO at Lattice, an employee management platform. Along with their brother Max, the Altmans launched a fund in 2020 called Apollo that is focused on funding "moonshot" companies.
"Moonshot" companies are startups that are financially risky but could potentially pay off with a breakthrough development.
In 2015, Altman cofounded OpenAI with Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX at the time. Their goal for the non-profit artificial intelligence company was to make sure AI doesn't wipe out humans.
"We discussed what is the best thing we can do to ensure the future is good?" Elon Musk told The New York Times in 2015. "We could sit on the sidelines or we can encourage regulatory oversight, or we could participate with the right structure with people who care deeply about developing A.I. in a way that is safe and is beneficial to humanity."
Some of Silicon Valley's most prominent names pledged $1 billion to OpenAI along with Altman and Musk, including Reid Hoffman, the cofounder of LinkedIn, and Peter Thiel.
After the 2016 election, Altman, who tweeted that he voted against Donald Trump, said he decided to talk to 100 Trump supporters around the US to understand what they did and didn't like about the president. He also wanted to know "what would convince them not to vote for him in the future."
In a thread on Twitter, Altman said he was "voting against Trump because I believe the principles he stands for represent an unacceptable threat to America."
He also said Peter Thiel, who was still working with YC at the time, "is a high profile supporter of Trump," and that, "I disagree with this."
But, he said, "YC is not going to fire someone for supporting a major party nominee."
YC and Thiel stopped working together a year later in 2017 for unspecified reasons.
During his interviews, Altman said he "did not expect to talk to so many Muslims, Mexicans, Black people, and women in the course of this project."
He said almost everyone he approached was willing to talk to him, but they also didn't want to share their names in fear of being "targeted by those people in Silicon Valley if they knew I voted for him." Altman said one of the people he talked to in Silicon Valley made him sign a confidentiality agreement before talking because she was scared of losing her job for supporting Trump.
Altman stepped down as YC president in March 2019 to focus on OpenAI. He stayed in a chairman role at the accelerator.
At a StrictlyVC event in 2019, Altman was asked how OpenAI planned to make a profit, and he said the "honest answer is we have no idea."
Altman said OpenAI had "never made any revenue," and that it had "no current plans to make revenue."
"We have no idea how we may one day generate revenue," he said at the time.
Altman became CEO of OpenAI in May 2019 after it turned away from being a nonprofit company into a "capped profit" corporation.
"We want to increase our ability to raise capital while still serving our mission, and no pre-existing legal structure we know of strikes the right balance," OpenAI said on its blog. "Our solution is to create OpenAI LP as a hybrid of a for-profit and nonprofit — which we are calling a 'capped-profit' company."
Altman flew to Seattle to meet with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, where he demonstrated OpenAI's AI models for him, WSJ reported. After that, OpenAI received a $1 billion investment from Microsoft in 2019.
Current and former insiders at OpenAI told Fortune that after Altman took over as CEO, and after the investment from Microsoft, the company started focusing more on developing natural language processing.
Altman and OpenAI's chief scientist, Ilya Sutskever, said the move to focus on large language models is the best way for the company to reach artificial general intelligence, or AGI, a system that has broad human-level cognitive abilities.
On October 21, 2021, Altman and his cofounders, Alex Blania and Max Novendstern, launched a global cryptocurrency project called Worldcoin, which wanted to give everyone in the world access to crypto by scanning their iris with an orb.
The company was started in 2020, but stopped operating in a few countries in 2022 due to logistics issues. In January, the company recently tweeted that it has reached 1 million people and has onboarded over 150,000 first-time crypto users.
Under Altman's tenure as CEO, OpenAI released popular generative AI tools to the public, including DALL-E and ChatGPT.
Both DALL-E and ChatGPT are known as "generative" AI, meaning the bot creates its own artwork and text based off information it has been fed.
After ChatGPT was released on November 30, Altman tweeted that it had reached over 1 million users in five days.
ChatGPT was made public so OpenAI could use feedback from users to improve the bot. A few days after its launch, Altman tweeted that it "is incredibly limited, but good enough at some things to create a misleading impression of greatness."
Altman tweeted that ChatGPT was "great" for "fun creative inspiration," but "not such a good idea" to look up facts.
ChatGPT recently began testing a paid version of ChatGPT called "ChatGPT Professional" that is supposed to give better access to the bot. In December, Altman tweeted that OpenAI "will have to monetize it somehow at some point; the compute costs are eye-watering."
In January, Microsoft again announced it was making a "multibillion dollar" investment into OpenAI. Although specifics of the investment were not shared, it is believed Microsoft's investment is worth $10 billion.
Before Microsoft's investment, other venture capitalists wanted to buy shares from OpenAI employees in a tender offer that valued the company at around $29 billion.
Altman is still interested in nuclear fusion and invested $375 million in Helion Energy last year.
"Helion is more than an investment to me," Altman told TechCrunch. "It's the other thing beside OpenAI that I spend a lot of time on. I'm just super excited about what's going to happen there."
He told TechCrunch that he's "happy there's a fusion race," to build a low-cost fusion energy system that can eventually power the Earth.
Last month, OpenAI launched its pilot subscription plan for ChatGPT Plus, which costs $20 a month.
People who pay $20 a month for ChatGPT Plus get benefits such as access to the site even when traffic is high, faster responses from the bot, and first access to new features and ChatGPT improvements.
The subscription is only available for people in the US, and OpenAI said it will soon start inviting people on the waitlist to join.
Altman recently wrote that OpenAI's mission is to make sure AGI "benefits all of humanity. He laid out the company's short term and long term expectations for AGI development in a blog post.
"If AGI is successfully created, this technology could help us elevate humanity by increasing abundance, turbocharging the global economy, and aiding in the discovery of new scientific knowledge that changes the limits of possibility," Altman wrote on OpenAI's blog.
Despite its potential, Altman said AGI, or artificial general intelligence, comes with "serious risk of misuse, drastic accidents, and societal disruption." But instead of stopping its development, Altman said "society and the developers of AGI have to figure out how to get it right."
Altman went on to share the principles OpenAI "care about most," including that "the benefits of, access to, and governance of AGI to be widely and fairly shared."
Altman said he and OpenAI are "a little bit scared" of AI's potential as it continues to develop.
In an interview with ABC News, Altman said he thinks "people should be happy that we're a little bit scared" of generative AI systems as they develop.
Altman said he doesn't think AI systems should only be developed in a lab.
"You've got to get these products out into the world and make contact with reality, make our mistakes while the stakes are low," he said.
OpenAI recently announced the option to turn off chat history in ChatGPT so the data can't be used to train and improve its models.
In a blog post, the company said it hopes the option to turn off chat history "provides an easier way to manage your data than our existing opt-out process."
When a user turns off their chat history, new conversations will be kept for 30 days for OpenAI to review them for abuse, then are permanently deleted.
In his first appearance before Congress, Altman told a Senate panel there should be a government agency to grant licenses to companies working on advanced AI.
Altman told lawmakers there should be an agency that grants licenses for companies that are working on AI models "above a certain scale of capabilities." He also said the agency should be able to revoke licenses from companies that don't follow safety rules.
"I think if this technology goes wrong, it can go quite wrong," Altman said. "And we want to be vocal about that, we want to work with the government to prevent that from happening."
OpenAI recently launched a ChatGPT app for iPhones in the US that will soon roll out to Android users and other countries.
The app, which is free, can answer text-based and spoken questions using Whisper, another OpenAI product that is a speech-recognition model. Users who have a subscription to ChatGPT Plus can also access it through the app.
Correction: February 2, 2023 — An earlier version of this story defined AGI incorrectly and listed the incorrect age at which Altman was named president of Y Combinator. AGI in this context stands for artificial general intelligence. Altman became president of Y Combinator at 28, not 31.
Altman has been meeting with leaders in Europe to discuss AI regulations and said OpenAI has "no plans to leave" the EU, despite his earlier concerns over the EU's proposed AI Act.
At the start of his trip, Altman told reporters in London that he was concerned about the EU's proposed AI Act that focuses on regulating AI and protecting Europeans from AI risks.
"The details really matter," Altman said, according to the Financial Times. "We will try to comply, but if we can't comply, we will cease operating."
However, he shared on Twitter later in the week that OpenAI is "excited to continue to operate here and of course have no plans to leave."
In an October interview, Altman expressed "deep misgivings" about people befriending AI.
Altman made it clear that he doesn't believe humans should try to be friends with AI in an interview during Wall Street Journal's Tech Live event.
"I personally really have deep misgivings about this vision of the future where everyone is super close to AI friends, and not more so with their human friends," Altman said.
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